It’s Science Over Capitalism: Kim Stanley Robinson and the Imperative of Hope

“What can’t go on won’t go on. Capitalism is breaking the system, meaning people’s lives and the biosphere.”
Photo: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr
By: James Bradley

There is no question Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the most important writers working today. Across almost four decades and more than 20 novels, his scrupulously imagined fiction has consistently explored questions of social justice, political and environmental economy, and utopian possibility.

Robinson is probably best known for his Mars trilogy, which envisions the settlement and transformation of Mars over several centuries, and the ethical and political challenges of building a new society. Yet it is possible his most significant legacy will turn out to be the remarkable sequence of novels that began with “2312.” Published across less than a decade, these six books reimagine both our past and our future in startlingly new ways, emphasizing the indivisibility of ecological and economic systems and placing the climate emergency center stage.

This interview is excerpted from the book “Tomorrow’s Parties: Life in the Anthropocene

The most recent, “The Ministry for the Future,” published in 2020, is a work of extraordinary scale and ambition. Simultaneously a deeply confronting vision of the true scale of the climate crisis, a future history of the next 50 years, and a manifesto outlining the revolutionary change that will be necessary to avert catastrophe, it is by turns terrifying, exhilarating, and finally, perhaps surprisingly, guardedly hopeful. It is also one of the most important books published in recent years.

This interview was conducted between January and March 2021, beginning in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the United States Capitol and the inauguration of President Biden, and ending as a second wave of the COVID pandemic began to gather pace in many countries around the world. As we bounced questions back and forth across the Pacific, a drumbeat of impending disaster grew louder by the day: atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 417 ppm, a level 50 percent higher than preindustrial levels; a study showed the current system responsible for the relative warmth of the Northern Hemisphere — the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation — at its weakest level in a thousand years; and Kyoto’s cherry blossoms bloomed earlier than they have at any time since records began in the ninth century CE.

James Bradley: In several of your recent novels, you’ve characterized the first few decades of the 21st century as a time of inaction and indecision — in “2312,” for instance, you called them “the Dithering” — but in “The Ministry for the Future,” you talk about the 2030s as “the zombie years,” a moment when “civilization had been killed but it kept walking the Earth, staggering toward some fate even worse than death.” I wonder whether you could talk a little bit about that idea. What’s brought us to this point? And what does it mean for a civilization to be dead?

Kim Stanley Robinson: I’m thinking now that my sense of our global civilization dithering, and also trying to operate on old ideas and systems that are clearly inadequate to the present crisis, has been radically impacted by the COVID pandemic, which I think has been somewhat of a wake-up call for everyone — showing that we are indeed in a global civilization in every important sense (food supply, for instance), and also that we are utterly dependent on science and technology to keep eight billion people alive.

So “2312” was written in 2010. In that novel, I provided a timeline of sorts, looking backward from 2312, that was notional and intended to shock, also to fill the many decades it takes to make three centuries, and in a way that got my story in place the way I wanted it. In other words, it was a literary device, not a prediction. But it’s interesting now to look back and see me describing “the Dithering” as lasting so long. These are all affect states, not chronological predictions; I think it’s very important to emphasize science fiction’s double action, as both prophecy and metaphor for our present. As prophecy, SF is always wrong; as metaphor, it is always right, being an expression of the feeling of the time of writing.

So following that, “The Ministry for the Future” was written in 2019, before the pandemic. It expresses both fears and hopes specific to 2019 — and now, because of the shock of the pandemic, it can serve as an image of “how it felt before.” It’s already a historical artifact. That’s fine, and I think it might be possible that the book can be read better now than it could have been in January 2020 when I finished it.

Now I don’t think there will be a period of “zombie years,” and certainly not the 2030s. The pandemic as a shock has sped up civilization’s awareness of the existential dangers of climate change. Now, post COVID, a fictional future history might speak of the “Trembling Twenties” as it’s described in “The Ministry for the Future,” but it also seems it will be a period of galvanized, spasmodic, intense struggle for control over history, starting right now. With that new feeling, the 2030s seem very far off and impossible to predict at all.

JB: In “The Ministry for the Future,” the thing that finally triggers change is the catastrophic heat wave that opens the book. It’s a profoundly upsetting and very powerful piece of writing, partly because an event of the sort it depicts is likely to be a reality within a decade or so. But as somebody whose country has already experienced catastrophic climate disaster in the form of fire and flood and seen little or no change in our political discourse, I found myself wondering whether the idea such a disaster would trigger change mightn’t be too optimistic. Do you think it will take catastrophe to create real change? Or will the impetus come from elsewhere?

KSR: People are good at imagining the catastrophe will always happen somewhere else and to other people. Thus in Australia, people will tend to think, “But it never could happen in Sydney, in Melbourne, in Perth.” Even though it could. So it won’t be catastrophe per se that changes people’s politics and their votes. The impetus comes from ideology, from one’s invented imaginary relationship to the real situation. Here the discursive battle is paramount. The stories we tell each other will make the difference. The scientific community keeps telling us a story: that if we continue burning carbon into the atmosphere, and otherwise wrecking the biosphere, we will crash as a species. This story is making headway; I’ve seen the headway, everyone has, in the last two decades. A tipping point will arrive soon where it is the obvious story that everyone accepts as real; it will become hegemonic. And the sooner the better.

People are good at imagining the catastrophe will always happen somewhere else and to other people.

The radically cold temperatures hitting the U.S. as I write this are located in many of the “red states” that voted for Trump, especially Texas. Voting Republican now is in effect a vote against science, a denial of science. So as I write, everyone in those regions without electrical power has to contemplate that in fact they depend completely on science and technology to stay alive. Will that change their thinking and their votes? Probably not — not all of them, and not immediately. But repeated shocks from reality will soon change the window of acceptable discourse, and then the hegemonic space. We are utterly dependent on the science and technology that is both civilization’s invention and its enabling device. This story needs to be insisted on. One way I try to do this is to remind everyone that when you’re sick and scared for your life, you run to a scientist, which is to say your doctor. That’s proof of what you really believe, more than your vote or your words.

In Australia, I can only say I’m mystified. Thirty million is a small population to include so many science deniers. An advanced, developed, rich nation, but also an island that can feel separate from the rest of the world — who knows? No one can understand other political entities from the outside. Even inside them, they are mysterious. But I’d have expected your science deniers and coal burners to be defeated at the polls by now. Maybe that will happen. Maybe electing an idiot like Trump helped to speed the process here.

JB: Part of the process of change has to be about rethinking our relationship with the past and the future. The idea of how we reimagine our relationship with the future is one you return to often: in “The Ministry for the Future,” your characters discuss the way economists discount the value of future lives when making decisions now, and the entire plot of Aurora is driven by the failure of people in the present to consider the effect of their actions on the lives of their descendants. But in an odd way, aren’t these questions about the future the easy ones? Because it’s the poisonous legacies of the past, of racism, slavery, colonialism, and extractivism, and their human and environmental costs, that are really intractable. Can we solve those questions of the future without solving the problems of the past? Or is that a false dichotomy?

KSR: This question reminds me of a slogan one sees in Marx, also Tolkien: We have to deal with the historical situation we’ve been given. Things could have been different, but they’re not — so on we go, free to act, and obliged to act, but not in a situation of our choosing.

That’s not to suggest we ignore history. Studying it teaches a lot (maybe everything) about where we are now. Seeing how we got to this moment — which is to say arguing about how we got to this moment — is part of the discursive battle about what to do now.

So there are indeed poisonous legacies of the past, inscribed into current practices, hegemonic beliefs, structures of feeling, and laws. The dead hand of the past, trying to strangle the new baby future that we, in the present, midwife. What I often feel that one can see very clearly is two major strands, braided together although often in direct conflict. I call it science versus capitalism. It’s like Australian economist Dick Bryan once said to me about finance and the state: They are hand in hand, but they’re arm-wrestling for control.

So the project becomes to strengthen the strand that is working for justice and a sustainable balance with the biosphere — I call that science, though it has to be admitted that this is a signaling word for a whole strand of history, which includes in it democracy, justice, progress, etcetera. Then, against that, there’s capitalism, again a signal word for feudalism, patriarchy, and all the older power systems of the few over the many, most of which emerged with agriculture about 10,000 years ago. That power system has an ancient lineage and is hard to beat.

Into this mythic dualism, lots of elements of history can be slotted, but it is a view from space, or a sock puppet play, very Manichean, and maybe often unhelpful. Maybe it’s my own false dichotomy, but I still feel it has some explanatory power. So it’s not the future over the past, except as a version of this: It’s science over capitalism.

JB: I’m interested by your decision to define the conflict as science versus capitalism, because it forces us to think about a lot of these questions differently and to recognize that many things we don’t usually think of as technologies — economic policy, finance, social justice, education, and all the other drivers of social change — can be usefully treated as precisely that. But doesn’t it also demand we recognize the real challenge isn’t electrifying the grid or rolling out solar panels, it’s a much more fundamental realignment of political power?

KSR: Yes, I think that’s right. Technology can be thought of as machinery only, but here computers are really helpful as an analogy; they have to have both hardware and software. In civilization as a technology, as with computers, the software is crucial; otherwise it’s just an inert hunk of metal and plastic. So in this case, we need to focus on software technologies like finance, economics, law, and politics. Then justice becomes a technology, and language itself. This blows up questions like, “Can there be a technological solution without political reform?” Maybe people are there asking, “Could we just make new machines that would overcome the disastrous effects of our unjust and unsustainable political economy, which is to say neoliberal capitalism?”

I think the feeling of a massive immovable system has begun to creak, shift, crack, and let in new light.

I think the answer to that is no. We need to change our political economy so that a single index, profit, isn’t our measure of doing well. We need to figure out a financial system that pays us for doing things good for the biosphere, including all its citizens, human and not — this would be safest, and indeed it’s necessary for humans — rather than rewarding activities that hurt people and biosphere, which profit-seeking will do.

Capital gets invested at the highest rate of return. That’s the law, often literally the law. Repairing the biosphere and creating justice among humans is not the highest rate of return now. So it won’t happen. End of story.

Or beginning of new chapter. This is what we’re seeing in new terms like Modern Monetary Theory, full employment, carbon quantitative easing, the social cost of carbon, universal basic income and services, Half Earth plans, and wage parity. Also in the return of older terms like socialism, or social security. All these ideas or systems or software technologies are being proposed to get out of the death spiral of neoliberal capitalism. What I find interesting and really encouraging is that these ideas are being discussed by people in the central banks and the national governments and the international diplomatic community. Even among economists, who for the most part have devoted all their work to an analysis of capitalism. These are no longer marginal or science fictional ideas; they are on the table as potential legislation.

JB: Those ideas and that sense a new world is being brought into being around us is very much a part of “The Ministry for the Future,” which, despite the grief and anger that make it so wrenching to read, shares the essentially utopian vision of your work in general. But it’s often not easy to see how much change is afoot, if only because, as Mark Fisher put it, capitalism occupies the horizons of the thinkable. Do you think this difficulty contributes to the sense of despair and powerlessness so many people feel at the moment?

KSR: Yes. I think of it in terms known to many now: ideology, hegemony, structure of feeling, capitalist realism: “There is no alternative.” And so on. It’s been 40 years of a dominant political economy, following a couple of centuries of expanding capitalist power over world history, so it’s hard to imagine how that could change. Thus the famous Jameson/Zizek slogan: “Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

But I think now there’s also a widespread feeling that it can’t go on. And what can’t go on won’t go on. Capitalism is breaking the system, meaning people’s lives and the biosphere. We’re on the brink of causing a mass extinction event that will hammer humans, too; it’s not just climate change, which can be imagined as a matter of turning down the thermostat, but a much wider habitat collapse — our only habitat.

Given that feeling, people are looking for a way out of the current system and also for some ideas as to what that next system might look like. Even at the heart of the capitalist order — which is to say the central banks, the big corporations and investment firms, and in governments from local to nation-state level — there is talk of change. Of course, very often many of those speaking are hoping to manage change while retaining power. But some very interesting changes are part of that discussion. So I think the feeling of a massive immovable system has begun to creak, shift, crack, and let in new light.

JB: There’s a question here about how the change takes place, though, isn’t there? Especially given the power of the interests that oppose it. In New York 2140, you imagine a kind of Velvet Revolution, a peaceful reorganization of society and the economy, but in “The Ministry for the Future” you quote Keynes’s line about the euthanasia of the rentiers. Do you think we’ll see an acceleration of violent resistance as the climate crisis intensifies? And how should we think about that?

KSR: I’m not sure about this. In “The Ministry for the Future,” I described all kinds of political violence and also sabotage against fossil fuel or antihuman infrastructures. The novel was an attempt to describe the next three decades in terms that were antidystopian, but also plausible given the world of stark disagreements that we live in. If people see their families die as a result of climate change impacts, then the slow violence of capitalism will spark the fast violence of spasmodic revolt. Very often these violent acts of resistance do little good; the resistance fighters are killed or jailed, and the oppressive system doubles down in its oppression.

So I am among many who are trying to imagine ways of gaining the good results of a revolution without going through the trauma of old-style violent revolutions, which very often backfire anyway. Some better way to a better situation, which can be imagined in the realms of the discursive battle (Can we get more persuasive?); the political battle (Can we win a working majority?); the legislative battle (Can we pass laws that will help?); and then, also, sabotage of life-destroying machinery, mass civil disobedience, and alternative systems of governance that are simply lived outside the current nation-state system — and so on. The list could be extended.

“I am among many who are trying to imagine ways of gaining the good results of a revolution without going through the trauma of old-style violent revolutions, which very often backfire anyway.”

My objections to violent resistance are both moral and tactical: First, it isn’t right to hurt other human beings, if not being attacked by them and defending oneself. Then, tactically, violence often seems to backfire and increase the misery being resisted. This is either because the state monopoly on violence is jealously held (and possibly a good thing) or because even if you seem to succeed by violence, you fail in the long run because the effort has used bad means, and the most violent among the revolutionaries tend to seize power and then use that same violence against any dissent of any kind.

This isn’t the whole story of history, obviously, but it’s the way it feels to me now, in our current situation. So a very rapid, stepwise, legal reformist revolution seems to me the best thing to try now. Later, if we get into the 2030s without meaningful progress on the various justice and sustainability fronts, I think more violent forms of resistance are more likely and maybe more justified. We’re in a closing window of opportunity for peaceful tactics to work.

JB: That closing window of opportunity means some very radical ideas are now on the table, some of which — such as proposals to dim the sun or seed the oceans with iron — are likely to have significant side effects. The idea that humans might terraform or re-engineer the environment in this way is central to your Mars trilogy and plays a big role in “2312,” “Green Earth,” and “The Ministry for the Future.” Do you think we’re now at a point where some of these sorts of schemes have to be seriously entertained? And to what extent should we see them as a symptom of the failure of democratic means?

KSR: We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation, so all these radical ideas need to be explored to see if they might help in safe ways. Geoengineering has been defined in advance as “doing dangerous things to save capitalism,” so naturally people tend to be wary of it. But everything humans do at scale has planetary effects and could be called geoengineering in some literal sense. Maximizing women’s education and political power worldwide could be called geoengineering because it would slow the population rise as a result of increased human agency, and this would have biosphere effects we could measure. As it’s a good and needed thing in and of itself, its ancillary benefits to the biosphere make it a double good.

So at that point the term geoengineering is exploded, and if you wanted to discuss it further it should be on a case-by-case basis. Deflecting some sunlight away by casting dust into the atmosphere (solar radiation management), if the dust were not volcanic but chosen for its inertness (like limestone dust), would reduce temperatures slightly for a few years—then the dust would fall to Earth, and the results of the act could be evaluated. If it was done by international agreement, then it would be the result of representative governments. It would be an experiment. Seeding the ocean with iron dust to create algal blooms, which would then die and fall to the sea floor, taking their carbon with them — well, the oceans are already sick because of our carbon burn, plastic pollution, bottom dragging, and overfishing. Doing more to it seems stupid to me, but on the other hand, a single experiment wouldn’t change much and might teach us some things. On this particular tactic, I’m like most people in thinking there’s got to be a better, safer way.

But this discussion is part of what it means to be in the Anthropocene — we’ve damaged the biosphere so badly that we now have to work at repairing it, without knowing enough to be sure how to do that well. Still, some actions are obvious. Stop emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Stop destroying habitat. Invent regenerative agriculture. End poverty and extend equal rights and education to all. These good acts will all have positive biosphere effects. The various emergency actions being discussed are marginal to these big, obvious things we need to do. You asked if I thought we were already at the point where we will need to do these things; I don’t think so. But we’re close. And if millions die in a wet bulb 35°C heat wave, then the nation-state where that happens may take matters into their own hands. No one in the developed world will have any right to object to that.

JB: The vision of our future you articulate in “The Ministry for the Future” is deeply confronting, but also, ultimately, hopeful in that it runs counter to the growing belief in the developed world that collapse is inevitable. Do you see hope as an imperative?

KSR: Yes, I do. Also, it’s very natural and biological; life hopes, hunger is a hope. Again, it’s too big a word to help much. Is it good to be alive? Do you hope to go on living therefore? That kind of hope is very persistent.

But then also there is fear. And there are reasons for fear. Is there a growing belief in the developed world that collapse is inevitable? I’m not so sure. And what would collapse mean? That you have to live like people in the Global South live now? Or that three-quarters of all humans will suddenly die in a spasm of civilizational incompetence? These are very different kinds of collapse. So hopes and fears, we always have them in a great overflow.

What I like about science is the way it tries to get particular. Is enough food being grown to feed everyone on Earth? Yes. Is it automatic that that continues? No. Is wilderness a good idea or a bad one? (This is one I’m thinking about now.) Well, scientists involved would ask which of the eight or ten definitions of wilderness you’re talking about. I like that kind of specificity.

But I think with this question you’re inquiring about our culture’s structure of feeling, the vibe, how the young feel, what the internet is saying if you just link around reading, and so on. There, in the realm of the general intellect or the feeling of our time, we’re inside a ringing bell. There is a great roaring, a cacophony. You can pull out the sounds you want to hear and call it an accidental symphony of sorts, and then get on with what needs doing. Your hopes and fears will still keep you awake at night. Meanwhile, the work goes on. People want their children to have a good life. Capitalism isn’t working, and what can’t go on won’t go on. So we’ll be experimenting our way into a different political economy. Hopefully we’ll dodge a mass extinction event, and then all kinds of good possibilities will open up. I think it really is a crux moment in history. The 2020s are going to be wild.

James Bradley is a writer and critic. His books include the novels “Wrack,” “The Deep Field,” “The Resurrectionist,” and “Clade,” all of which have won or been nominated for major literary awards; a book of poetry, “Paper Nautilus”; and “The Penguin Book of the Ocean.” In 2012 he won the Pascall Prize for Australia’s Critic of the Year. His newest novel, “Ghost Species,” is published by Hodder Studio. He lives on Gadigal Land in Sydney, Australia.

This interview is excerpted from the book “Tomorrow’s Parties: Life in the Anthropocene.”

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